Good morning everybody. I’m pleased to be joined today by Professor Michael Kidd, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia.
Significantly, we are due to pass the 50 million dose mark in the course of the next 48 hours, and what that means is that Australians have been coming forward at the rate of approximately 7 million over the course of January, vastly more than expected. A real tribute to everybody involved.
As a consequence of having been able to vaccinate approximately 7 million people in January, we are now opening and expanding the eligibility for the booster program.
We will move as of today, as has previously been foreshadowed, from a four-month eligibility nation-wide to three months. Jurisdictions within their state clinics have already done that and we thank them for that. But what this means is an extra 4.2 million people will be eligible for boosters as of today.
We will go from approximately 11.5 million people who are eligible, to 15.7 people who are eligible. And already, in terms of our boosters, we’ve had 7 and a three quarter million, 7.76 million people who’ve had their boosters. And that’s 67.5 per cent of the currently eligible population, and it’s already 49 per cent when you look at the expanded eligible population as of today on the three-month basis since people have had their second doses.
So, Australians have been coming forward. The booster program, as Lieutenant-General Frewen set out today, has been running at roughly six times the rate of the first dose program during its early days, and we've seen the highest rates of daily doses across first, second or third doses over the course of the last weeks, consistently and repeatedly with regards to boosters.
So, Australians have stepped forward, but there is still significant capacity. We know that there are approximately 18 million doses available, and we have the capacity to inoculate everybody who is eligible, and we would encourage people to come forward.
The simple message is if you haven't previously been eligible or you are eligible and you haven't come forward for your first dose or your second dose or your booster, now's the time. Please don't wait.
And so we'd encourage everybody to come forward. And an extra 4.2 million people eligible for boosters as of today, moving from a four-month eligibility to a three-month nationwide eligibility since the second dose.
Another very important thing is that we have seen a consistent decrease in cases, hospitalisations and ICU. When we look at the last 10 days, it's a decrease in hospitalisations around the country for people with COVID, of 487, and people with COVID in ICU is down 50 over that period to 367 as of yesterday - today's figures will be updated - and a decrease on those who are ventilated by 12, down to 133. And so well within the capacity of the system.
The challenge here in Australia has been workforce, but the results are significantly below even the best case projections that we saw back in early December and mid-December, and that's been shown both through the states and more generally at the national level.
So I think that that is important. Professor Kidd, Michael, will speak to the fact that schools are going back and we could well expect with a broader screening program asymptomatic cases to be detected amongst children, and therefore the overall number of cases may rise. We don't know, but may rise off the back of that asymptomatic testing program.
But we're well prepared. And on that front, what we've seen is significant increases in supplies of rapid antigen tests up through the Commonwealth system, the state system and through the community market, through pharmacies and supermarkets.
At the Commonwealth level, we've already delivered over 9.2 million rapid antigen tests directly, at which 7.6 million have gone to aged care continuously and consistently since August of last year.
And the pharmacies program, the concessional rapid antigen test program, I'm really pleased to be able to report what we've seen is over 2800 pharmacies deliver over 2.4 million rapid antigen tests, well over double of what we had expected by this stage, to over 563,000 pensioners and concession card holders – again, over double of what we expected.
So they're getting strong supplies - obviously, it will vary from pharmacy to pharmacy - and strong take up. But there is more capacity there for those that are looking. Please contact- find a pharmacy, the website, and have a look. See if anything is available.
But we have had double the delivery that we'd expected by this stage, and so I think that's a very important outcome.
Lastly, I'll ask Professor Kidd to address both the emerging Omicron variant and the evidence and understanding of knowledge. The Prime Minister and I were briefed within 24 hours of the news that this variant was potentially emerging. And then secondly, to just discuss the fact that the first of the treatments, Paxlovid and molnupiravir, will be made available to the states to assist with vulnerable groups during the course of this week.
I would note just a couple of other things, that in terms of children's vaccinations, we've seen over 40,000 delivered on the weekend and we're now at 906,000, or approximately 40 per cent of the children's population. The fastest rollout by age group across the course of the vaccination program, and very significantly, some schools and some school districts are holding school based vaccination programs.
And if your child hasn't been vaccinated, please allow them to be vaccinated. Please bring them forward. Whether it's through your GP, your pharmacy, your state program or a school based program, it is a very important step forward to protecting them, and it's already one of the highest rates of children's vaccination in the world. I'll just note that we're at 95.5 per cent first doses and 95.3 per cent second doses, and Australians are continuing to come forward.
All up, approximately 7 million doses delivered over the course of January. And as a consequence of that, we're in a position to be able to move now to an extra 4.2 million people who are eligible under a three-month gap between the second dose and then due for your booster.
Thank you, Minister. So, it's very good news that boosters are now recommended three months after the second dose.
We know that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine provides very good protection, especially against severe disease. A booster dose ensures the protection from the first two doses is even stronger and longer lasting and helps to prevent the virus from spreading, prevent new variants from emerging.
So I urge you if you or your loved ones are now eligible for the booster, please arrange to get the booster vaccine today.
The issue of schools with schools returning, and many children are doing regular rapid antigen tests, we do expect that we'll see a rise in the number of reported cases of COVID-19, and this is because although infection with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 can lead to moderate or severe illness in some people, in most people it causes mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. And that's especially in children.
Therefore, the more testing we do, we can expect to pick up more cases of infection in people with no symptoms or very mild symptoms. So we do expect to see a rise in the number of cases being reported as schools return. But what that probably means is that we're getting a more accurate understanding of how widespread Omicron infection is in Australia at present.
On the BA.2 sub variant of Omicron, the UK Health Security Agency overnight has reported that the sub variant has a advantage, a growth advantage over the BA.1 subtype of Omicron.
Now, just a little bit of background. The BA.2 is one of four currently known sub variants of the Omicron virus; was first identified in southern Africa and was first picked up in Australia in December last year in a patient in Queensland. And we've seen reports from Denmark and elsewhere showing that it may be becoming the dominant sub variant of Omicron.
We don't know if this sub variant has any significantly different characteristics, though, in causing severity of disease compared to the original Omicron variant. We're not seeing more severe disease associated with this sub variant, and it's also too early to tell if there is any significant different impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines against this sub variant. Again, we're not picking up anything that is causing concern at the moment.
We do know that the Omicron variant of the virus can lead to breakthrough infections in those who've had two doses of a vaccine, and the booster doses provide additional protection. And again, this reinforces the importance of everyone getting their booster doses at three months, and particularly those who are at increased risk of severe disease - older people and people with chronic health conditions.
If this BA.2 sub-variant is shown to have more distinct clinical characteristics than the World Health Organization may determine, that it becomes a variant of its own, but it is too early to speculate on that, and we're not seeing indications of that at the moment.
The other issue that I want to cover is just on the oral treatments. As you will recall, on 18 January, the Therapeutic Goods Administration granted provisional approval to two treatments - Pfizer's oral COVID-19 treatment, nirmatrelvir plus ritonavir, which is also known by the easier trade name of Paxlovid; and Merck Sharp and Dohme’s oral COVID-19 treatment, molnupiravir, which is also known by the trade name of Lagevrio.
These are both oral antiviral treatments, they're taken as tablets or capsules, and they both work by blocking the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to replicate in the human body.
Both of these treatments have been granted provisional approval by the TGA for treating COVID-19 in adults aged 18 years and over who do not require oxygen due to COVID-19, and who are at increased risk of progression to hospitalisation or death.
As these treatments start to come into the country, it's important to note that they will not be suitable for everyone. And once available, prescribing doctors will need to work with their patients to determine whether either of these treatments will be suitable for someone diagnosed with COVID-19 infection.
This morning, the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce has released its initial guidelines on the use of these two oral treatments in Australia and we’ll be watching very closely.
There'll be further guidance coming out expected over the week ahead.
Once the treatments do start to come into the country, the Australian Government will be working closely with the state and territory governments to ensure these treatments get distributed to those people who are most at risk and this, in the first instance, is likely to include people infected in outbreaks in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and, those infected in outbreaks in residential aged care and disability care settings.
Then, over coming months, as supply increases, we may see more wide distribution available across the population.
I do know that there will be many people recently infected with COVID-19 who will be taking a close interest in these treatments, or looking at the treatments as a possibility for their loved ones. And while the introduction of these oral treatments does represent an important new landmark in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I do need to reinforce that they should not be seen as a replacement for the need for vaccination or for booster doses. Vaccination remains the most effective way of protecting your health and the health of your loved ones during this pandemic.
So again, I urge everyone in Australia who is currently eligible for their first or second dose of the vaccine, or for their, or for their booster dose to please come forward, get those booster doses or those initial doses today.
Thank you, Minister.
Great. Happy to take questions. I'll start with the left hand side of the room as you're facing the lectern. And if you just identify yourself, please, and then work across the room.
Thanks, Minister. Eliza from Channel 9. Is it the case that every aged care facility will not get their boosters by today's deadline? And could deaths have been avoided if the rollout was finished sooner?
And there's still a lot of confusion about when people who have had COVID should get their booster. New South Wales says four to six weeks, Victoria says six, and ATAGI says wait until you're over your symptoms. Which is it?
On the eligibility for boosters, I'll reference Professor Kidd in relation to the ATAGI advice.
So ATAGI, late last week, amended its advice, recommending that people who’ve been infected with COVID-19 receive their booster vaccination within four months of that infection, but they did reinforce that people are eligible for their vaccine once their symptoms have resolved from their acute infection with COVID-19, and that people should not be waiting to get that booster vaccine, particularly at this time when we have such widespread COVID-19 through the Omicron variant in the community.
And just on aged care?
Yeah. And in terms of aged care, approximately 99 per cent of facilities are expected for completion today with the others, which for reasons such as outbreaks or in case of a vaccinator, if they were unable to attend because of an outbreak amongst staff, to be done in the coming days.
So in fact, we will have finished about six weeks ahead of our intended schedule, and that was a fast schedule in any event, but it was brought forward by Omicron.
So as of today, once we have our figures in, we're expecting it’ll be approximately 99 per cent of facilities, and only those where they have had questions around major outbreaks or around the vaccination provider having an outbreak. So that's, as I say, about six weeks ahead of schedule.
Gerard Cockburn from The Canberra Times. Thank you, Minister. There are two companies in Queensland which make rapid antigen tests for overseas markets, Ellume and AnteoTech. Have you or the Department engaged with these companies in ensuring our own domestic manufacturing supply? So we have supply to the next year of RAT’s?
Yeah. So the Department's been deeply engaged and has encouraged full submissions. And at this point in time, in particular, the TGA has been the principal avenue for the department, as I understand it.
In particular, we have had the TGA-approve 67 tests. One of those companies had their tests suspended by the US FDA for what's called a Class 1 concern, which meant a serious threat either to health or to loss of life.
So both have been encouraged to provide full details. At this stage, the TGA does not have a completed application from either.
So I have seen a lot of media discussion, and I am a little bit surprised that, given that there was a major FDA suspension, some have been advocating without being aware, or either advocating and if they were aware they were certainly not referencing that very serious FDA suspension.
So having said that, the TGA has approved 67 tests; has engaged repeatedly with these companies in encouraging them to provide the full data and submission which other companies have provided.
And so the TGA is continuing to work to bring forward, as quickly as possible, test approvals subject to safety and efficacy.
Thanks, Minister. Are you satisfied with the current situation in the aged care sector? The spread of cases and deaths growing and quite staff on the weekend? Can more be done to slow infections and stop deaths in aged care specifically?
Sure. So every day we're reviewing this and working with the sector - it's an absolute top priority. It is important to understand that we have a 99 per cent vaccination rate amongst aged care staff. And so literally in terms of the vaccination staff, it's impossible [inaudible] a higher rate.
In terms of the boosters, that program will have been delivered six weeks ahead of schedule. But what we are going to do is keep going back.
We know that some families have, for whatever their reasons, not provided consent for their loved ones to take up the booster. Previously, we have been at about 91 per cent of residents as opposed to the population of 95.5 per cent that have been vaccinated.
So, families or individuals who are making their own decisions because of the later stage of life, because in many cases their palliative have not chosen to take up the option.
But our message is really clear you don't want mum or dad, grandma or grandpa to die alone where they can't receive visitors. You don't want them to pass at all.
But to think this - of encouraging and supporting them to have the vaccination and to have the booster, or if they haven't had the first vaccination to have that, I think is really important.
And so Lieutenant-General Frewen will just continue the program - going back, and back, and back. And he will continue that program. We were discussing this last week, that even though it's expected that all of those facilities that had any barrier previously, will be covered over the course of the coming days, his intention is to continue that program so as to allow families to rethink their position.
And the other thing is that, in terms of PPE, we've provided over 30 million units of PPE this year, and over 100 million units of PPE in aged care; over 7.6 million rapid antigen tests, and that's increasing consistently each week, every week, and it's really the one sector where it's been provided continuously since August of last year.
And I think an important piece of information as well, the latest advice that I have is that approximately 60 per cent of those that have agonisingly passed have been in palliative care.
And so – and Michael is better placed than me to give a view on this - but the notion of those that were in the absolute latest days of their lives, who may have contracted COVID, the definition is that they have passed with COVID, and they are absolutely rightly counted as a national loss.
But approximately 60 per cent of those that have passed were in palliative care. And approximately 25 per cent of those that have passed were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. There is a little bit of an overlap, but 60 per cent in palliative care and 25 per cent unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
But every day we're fighting, and it is a challenge around the world. And what we've seen is that we have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in aged care. But every, every life we fight for.
Next please? I think, Rachel,
Thanks, Minister. With vaccine supplies, you said there's no, no issue there. But, do we have the staff capacity to ramp up boosters with another 4.2 million people eligible as of today, and probably pretty eager to get a booster shot?
Yes, we do.
What we know is that we were able, in January, with both people who were understandably having a break after two years of almost continuous service, with the fact that many people were furloughed either as cases or as contacts, and that included vaccinators, pathologists, administrative staff, we were able to achieve that mark of seven million doses, and that was also a month where we had the five weekends and we had two public holidays and we were able to achieve our highest day of vaccination, approximately 352,000.
And the states have pointed out that they have spare capacity, that there are unfilled bookings. And so here's the chance.
And it may be, in any one day it may be that a particular practice or a particular pharmacy might have all their bookings filled. But if you look around, whether it's Commonwealth vaccination clinics in particular spaces in state vaccination clinics, pharmacies or GP's, there are options there.
And that vaccination rate during the course of January, I think, was a testament to Australians coming forward, but also too, a testament, a testament to the capacity and capability of the vaccinators and the vaccination programme.
Thanks, Minister. We've seen the Coalition's popular support take another hit in the most recent Newspoll. Do you think this is a judgement on the Government's handling of the pandemic and frustrations towards that?
Look, I firstly respect the fact that for many Australians it's been, it's been a difficult period. Right around the world the Omicron variant has seen cases increase from approximately 500,000 a day before Omicron to over, over four million officially on some days, and clearly a worldwide figure of probably, in reality, closer to 10 million cases on a daily basis.
That has meant that Australia has not been unspared. And I recognise that for many people, whether it's being themselves or their loved ones; whether they [inaudible] school; whether they've been isolated. And the challenges of that has meant, in the workplace, that obviously people will have felt that and experienced that.
So I think that's important to acknowledge, to understand and to recognise from a government perspective, our task, our mission is to continue to work to keep Australians safe.
That has delivered one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and one of the lowest rates of loss of life and an unemployment rate of approximately 4.2 per cent expected to potentially decrease further.
And so when you put those things together, that's our focus. And it is still hard for many people - we absolutely recognise that. But the alternative is, I think, an opposition that literally does not have either the plans or the honesty to outline their plans.
I think we saw yesterday from Mr Albanese, a position where he'd been for universally free rapid antigen tests. Under the slightest pressure, that collapsed when he couldn't outline what he actually intended or wanted to do. By comparison, over 2.4 million rapid antigen tests delivered under the program.
So we recognise the challenges and the hardship people have faced, but also when it actually comes to keeping Australians safe, the coalition and the Prime Minister, Scott, Morrison are the ones that, in our view, are best placed to do that.
Thanks, Minister. Clare from The Daily Telegraph for Professor Kidd, actually. We haven't seen any changes to the isolation requirements since they were reduced to seven days for cases and household contacts.
However, there are a lot of studies, particularly from a UK, showing that, with regards to schools, it's better if a child is a contact to remain in school rather than sit a week or more out. However, that's not the setting we have. Is that off the table in Australia?
Or if, over the next few weeks, the school situation does not get out of hand, could we see a removal of surveillance testing in favour of household contacts who are students testing to go to school rather than stay home?
Okay. So, obviously these are questions for states and territories about their individual schools. But the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee continues to meet and to discuss the issues around length of time of isolation and the appropriateness in different settings.
So you're right, we'll continue to monitor what's happening both here in Australia as school returns, but also the experiences from overseas as we've been doing throughout the pandemic.
[inaudible] maintain that surveillance testing isn’t really that useful in terms of the comparison to testing to stay in school?
I think that we've got to watch very closely and see how this is actually working in real life, in real life situations, in other parts of the world.
And then we can see if it may be appropriate in Australia. But at the moment, we have the recommendations that we have.
I’ll just add that all of these programs are under continuous review. We adjusted the contact settings on medical advice where we had to balance out the pre-Omicron settings with the needs and nature of Omicron.
And equally, we had to recognise the needs to maintain workforce - exactly the sorts of questions that were asked earlier about maintaining workforce in healthcare settings and in distribution and in food and in other critical sectors.
So under continuous review, but they have looked very, very closely so far at the question of the time, and they've looked at the five days versus the seven days. And the medical advice at this point in time was, was very strong and very clear to National Cabinet.
Minister, we might all celebrate the fact that we got very high vaccination rates, but the reality is that we're going through the deadliest period of the pandemic. Now, within days there’s been 100 a day, which is the monthly total in a really bad flu season.
Do you concede that something's gone wrong? And secondly, can you give us the precise breakdown of who it is who's dying; how old they are; and vaccination status?
Sure. So firstly, in terms of the Omicron wave which has struck the world - it's been a hardship for the world. I was actually looking at the US figures today which are approaching an agonising 900,000 lives lost – almost, almost 300 times the human toll in Australia.
And so it has been, you know, the hardest of months after the most difficult of two years. And as a country, nobody has been unscathed, but the truth of it is that we do have one of the highest vaccination rates, and we do have one of the lowest rates of loss of life, and one of the strongest economic recoveries.
Against that background, we’re always looking at continuous improvement – continuous improvement - and that’s what we’ve done throughout the pandemic, whether it was closing the borders at the outset, whether it was the work being done in relation to procuring PPE, all right through the course of it.
So there’s continuous learning and engagement literally every day. I’ll go from here to the COVID-Shield meeting and we will continue to look at that which has occurred.
In terms of the vaccination rates and the other elements, I’m happy to turn to Michael, but we might have to take some of those elements on notice, if that’s alright.
Yes, we’ll have to come back to you with the exact figures. But one thing that we know, of course, is that is very high numbers of people are being infected with COVID-19 in the community.
As we’ve seen, there are people being hospitalised for other reasons who are also testing positive for COVID-19, and so that is obviously having an impact on the numbers, and some of those people sadly will pass away from other reasons but are also infected with COVID.
However, the impact on the unvaccinated is still very distressing and concerning, and it just reinforces the importance of vaccination, the importance of those two initial doses, but also the added protection from the boosters in order to prevent some of this loss of life that we’ve been seeing.
Can we get a guarantee, Minister, that we get a substantial deep-dive from the Health Department, from your department and your office, about the profile of people who are dying?
Because I think that the public- it would benefit public understanding the benefits of boosters, for example, and the reality of the fact that it is an older profile of people who are dying.
Yeah, there are a number of things that we know, and we’re very happy to provide it. We’ll just wait for the latest update from the states and territories which has been my approach throughout the course of the pandemic, to make sure that we allow them to complete their data and then provide that.
But the two key takeaways are that, again, as we know that the single biggest vulnerability is age, and the fact that we have a 99 per cent rate of vaccination for the over-70s – and indeed, the over-50s – is an enormously important protection.
The second thing is that there is a difference in outcome between those that are vaccinated and those that are unvaccinated. And those are the two most significant things, and that is if you are vaccinated it can help save your life and protect your life.
One dose is better than no dose; two doses are better than one dose, and the booster is the best of all of the possible protections. And so today, 4.2 million people who are becoming eligible for what is one of the most widely taken-up booster programs in the world already, but we want everybody to come forward.
And then the last question, please?
Thanks, Minister. Rob Scott from 7 News. I know we’re still going through the booster program, but has there been any information, any advancement on whether we’re going to need another booster, a fourth shot?
Sure. So that’s continuous review, obviously we’re talking with Israel – I think Professor Kelly has mentioned that in his public remarks – and we have planned as if, with our purchasing and acquisition, we would need to vaccinate the whole nation again.
Most likely advice at this stage is that if there were to be a fourth dose it’s more generally going to be focused on older Australians and immuno-compromised Australians, and perhaps those working in- with vulnerable patients.
So that’s still under active medical consideration, but the supplies and logistics are in place to deliver that if it’s required.
Then up the back please, apologies.
Jade from the Herald Sun. Three in five kids aged five to 11 are yet to have a COVID vaccine. This means that most would not receive their second jab until after term one.
Are experts considering reducing the eight-week interval between first and second doses, given the Omicron outbreak? And should parents be allowed to decide if their kid should get their second jab before that eight-week time period?
Sure. So, look, I’ll make a brief comment and then turn to Michael.
The advice we’ve received is from the TGA and from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. And that's for an eight-week dose as being the optimal period to protect children.
Those numbers are going up every day and are one of the highest rates in the world. Around the world, we've not seen the take-up of vaccinations amongst children that we have seen in Australia. Not universally the case, but it's very clear that we're already at one of the highest rates.
On the period, continuously reviewed by ATAGI, and we'll continue to follow their medical advice on individual, parent, or vaccinated choice.
So the ATAGI advice is that the vaccine can be given between three and eight weeks to the five to 11 year olds, particularly looking at the shorter time frame for those children who may be at increased risk of becoming seriously unwell, those children who have very significant medical conditions.
However, the longer timeframe is going to provide children with longer lasting protections and benefits from the vaccination, so there is that balance.
But as the Minister says, ATAGI is continuing to look at the timeframe for the two doses of the vaccine in the context as well, of course, of the Omicron outbreak that we're experiencing.
Great, and then next please.
Yeah, thanks Minister. Just on RAT’s, in September the TGA wrote: the introduction of at home testing was reliant on higher vax rates and the need for systems to be put in place to record results.
So how come three months later, when PCR testing was scrapped as the standard for recording positive cases, these systems were not already in place?
Well, with great respect, PCR wasn't scrapped, it was supplemented by rapid antigen tests. And states were able to bring them on within just a matter of days.
We saw in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland the fact that they were able to do that. I think it's important here to understand that the Commonwealth has been a strong, clear supporter of the role of rapid antigen tests. They were not legally available in certain states and territories.
The first of the TGA approvals for point of care tests was in 2020, and they've now approved over 67 tests all up and we were able to make them available for the public from home care or self-testing perspective from November.
The guidance at that point in time was very, very clear from the medical professionals that if you diagnose and test positive in the home environment, you needed to go for the PCR.
Obviously, things changed when there were interstate border requirements for travel to Queensland involving PCR, which during the course of December put very significant pressure. And at that point, the states were willing to change their medical advice and were able to stand up, to be fair to them, very, very quickly the self-reporting.
But it was a legal requirement if you had a test to then follow it up with a PCR test prior to that. And then the last question up the back, please.
Minister just quickly, on the schools returning, do you have any specific modelling and specific case numbers and hospitalisations expected in the coming weeks and months?
No, that would be a matter for the [inaudible] who are running the school’s programs. Alright. I think- is that everything? Alright.
Thank you, everybody. I just want to say again, eligibility expanded today, down from four months to three months since your second dose before you qualify and is eligible for the boosters.
An extra 4.2 million people following on seven million over the course of January have been vaccinated.
Thanks very much. Take care and please come forward to be vaccinated if you're eligible.